Freedom of expression is under threat in Scotland because the police are increasingly recording non-crimes as “hate incidents,” the watchdog Index on Censorship has warned.
Guidance from the College of Policing, the professional body for officers in England and Wales, suggests officers should log a non-crime hate incident if it is “perceived to be” motivated by hatred or prejudice, even if the speaker insists it was a joke or an innocent remark.
Police Scotland also logged 625 non-crime hate incidents in the first half of 2022.
In a statement to The Times of London, Police Scotland denied it “had introduced a culture whereby ‘jokes’ or freedom of speech were curtailed.”
But the Chief Executive of Index on Censorship, Ruth Smeeth, said: “There is a clear danger that the police involvement in the reporting and recording of speech that falls below legal thresholds can have a damaging impact on freedom of expression and robust debate. These figures, obtained through freedom of information, show a concerning and rapid upward trend in incidents.”
Smeeth, a former Labour MP, said, “The growing use risks the creation of a legal grey area where certain topics are avoided due to likelihood of police involvement, or their vexatious use by some to invite formal investigation and action against those exercising freedom of expression.”
The warning comes only days after the co-founder of a comedy club in London, Andy Shaw, said people were in danger of self-censoring in the workplace because of the danger of being reported for telling offensive jokes.
Shaw said “sarcasm” and “dark humour” helped people get through tough jobs in the emergency services or on hospital wards.
‘It’s More Risky to Be Funny’He said, “It’s more risky to be funny, or to try and be funny, because the consequence of getting it wrong—or somebody accidentally misunderstanding what you’re saying or willfully misunderstanding what you’re saying and then reporting it to a higher authority—can have pretty disastrous consequences at work.”
In August last year Scottish comedian Jerry Sadowitz had a gig at the Edinburgh Fringe cancelled by a venue which claimed the content of a previous show was “extreme in its racism, sexism, homophobia and misogyny.”
It is not clear if the jokes made by Sadowitz were logged by Police Scotland as a non-crime hate incident.
The College of Policing’s guidelines were updated to remove “trivial or irrational” complaints and reports about incidents which were not “motivated by hostility.”
The guidance says, “Individuals who are commenting in a legitimate debate—for example, on political or social issues—should not be stigmatised because someone is offended.”
The guidance was issued after a retired police officer, Harry Miller, 57, took the College of Policing to court after a Humberside Police officer called him at his work to “check [his] thinking” after he wrote his opinion about transgender women on Twitter in 2019.
The Assistant Chief Constable of Police Scotland, Gary Ritchie, told The Times of London, “A hate incident is any incident which is perceived by the victim or any other person to be motivated, wholly or in part, by malice, ill will and prejudice, towards a person or group but which does not constitute a criminal offence.”
Ritchie said, “We are aware that hate-related incidents are one of the most under-reported forms of crime in the country and in recent years we have actively encouraged the reporting of hate crimes and hate incidents so it is not unexpected that there has been a rise in reports.”
He added, “If a hate incident is established as a non-crime then it is unlikely to be investigated further.”
The Epoch Times has reached out to Police Scotland for comment.